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What does it mean to win?

What does it mean to win?

Recently in City Journal two associate professors in the department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations at the U.S. Army War College wrote about putting the war back into the war colleges.  Their basic argument is that students at the senior service schools are no longer taught about how to fight and WIN wars.  I can only hope that they are wrong, but in this era of “wokeism” they are probably fearfully correct.  My how things have changed!

Twenty -five plus years ago plus I wrote a booklet and taught a course at the Army War College entitled: Combat Termination: What does it mean to win?  The subject got the attention of the Commandant after I had given an hour-long presentation to the Chief of Staff of the Army in the context of Somalia.  This resulted in a two-hour long lecture on the subject to the entire War College classes of 1993-95.  The material probably still exists in the War College archives and the presentation to General Sullivan was captured in a chapter: “End State Planning: The Somalia Case” in Managing Contemporary Conflict: Pillars of Success, Max G. Manwaring and William J. Olson, Westview Press, 1996. 

Several years ago, I gave a lecture at my high school alma mater.  I am going to republish part of that lecture hoping that it makes my point.

So what does it mean to win? What is victory in real terms today?

Several years ago my book on my experiences in Vietnam was published.  I wrote the book trying to set the historical record straight and to ensure the stories of brave warriors—American, Vietnamese and Montgnard were saved for posterity.

Let my own experience and the conclusions in my book be used to the answer question of what it means to win.

From the Vietnam War experience we should learn the relationship between political and military objectives, if we learn nothing else. Sometimes those political and military goals can be at odds.  In this process we should develop a sense of what it means to win. Winning is not necessarily the destruction of the enemy, though it is often a consequence/objective. The Vietnam War was a political war — not for the United States but for the North Vietnamese. They understood that the war would not be won on the battlefields of Vietnam. It would be won in the streets of the United States.  In the United States of the 1960s and early 70s the anti-war demonstrations convinced the politicians that the effort was not worth the political cost—not the military cost, but the political cost. 

The same thing happened in 1954 in France.  In the French case the siege of a remote airfield named Dien Bien Phu lasted for an extensive period and eventually fell to the Viet Minh.  The French people were tired of war so soon after World War II and Korea.  They wanted peace and after the battle of Dien Bien Phu brought this fatigue to the political front.  The French people voted in the streets of Paris by their demonstrations and the French government then sought peace, resulting in the division of Viet Nam and planting the seeds for the next war.

The United States had not learned from the French experience this critical strategic lesson — the relationship between military operations and political objectives. We had stopped studying Clausewitz in our military and civilian schools.

Previously, traditional thought held that when diplomacy failed, things were turned over to the military. The linkage between the two was not apparent. This of course is the World War II model.

There was also prevalent in Washington a belief in gradual escalation/de-escalation, and the idea that you could vary the amount of force applied for signaling the opponent about your seriousness and intentions to convince him to quit. This is the rationalist argument pushed to the extreme and characterized Defense Secretary McNamara’s approach to conflict.  He believed that you could calculate an enemy’s willingness to resist in terms such as body count.  Unfortunately, today’s media are trying to continue the relevancy of body count as a measure of success.  It was not useful then and it totally fails in today’s conflicts.  The North Vietnamese understood the relationship of political and military objectives.

The North Vietnamese attacked the U.S. strategy and our political center of gravity (public support) through a combination of actions on the battlefield that created casualties, media concern for our POWs, and a greater than expected devotion to their objective of conquest of the South. In other words, McNamara’s rational calculation approach was incorrect. The North Vietnamese understood that they didn’t need to have a more capable army – they understood they needed to enflame the American public and provoke protests and dissension against the war.  That’s how they would win.   Their calculations were correct.

The North Vietnamese understood that if the American public stopped supporting a war that eventually the politicians would have to end it.  They were right!  We won the battle on the ground in Vietnam and lost it in the living rooms of America where war footage was shown on TV for the first time in history.

Tet is a Vietnamese holiday, the ‘high holy days’. Each year there was a cease fire agreed to by both sides so that they could celebrate Tet. However, in late January 1968 the North Vietnamese infiltrated large numbers of troops into South Vietnam and even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. The Tet offensive and “Agony of Khe Sanh” of early 1968 were designed with precise political objectives in mind. For two plus months the American people were confronted daily in the media by the possibility of a major battlefield defeat. This was the high point of the war.  Following Tet the demonstrations in United States increased, which undermined the political support for President Johnson. During the Paris peace talks an American colonel said to his Vietnamese counterpart: “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which the Vietnamese colonel responded: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

There was a Wall Street Journal article several months ago that argued that the North Vietnamese had actually been badly defeated on the battlefields of January to April 1968.

The political loss of the war began when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive.  The American public was kept in the dark about the capabilities of the North Vietnamese to mount such an offensive in order to maintain the public perception that we were winning the war. The ability to launch such an attack so caught the public off guard that it GALVANIZED them and was the beginning of the end — the beginning of the political loss.

Politics is the diplomacy of national leaders as they deal with one another to manage the relationships of countries.  It is a game of control and has always superceded the military in importance.  Battlefield decisions are highly influenced by the political situation.  This is not always a productive situation because the objectives may not always be the same.

The announcement of the bombing halt by President Johnson is a classic case in point. He announced a partial bombing halt of North Vietnam in an attempt to induce them to enter into negotiations. During March 1968, while preparing to conduct the relief of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, the 1st Cavalry Division was given its next mission — an attack into the A Shau Valley 50 miles south of Khe Sanh to destroy the North Vietnamese Army “remnants” from the occupation of Hue during the Tet offensive.

On April 1, 1968, the division plans officer and I prepared a concept brief for the attack to the division commanding general. The concept was to execute the planned attack to relieve Khe Sanh, but the attack would be continued past Khe Sanh into Laos and then leapfrog south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, while blocking and destroying the trail, and enter the A Shau Valley from the north — not the traditional attack route west from Hue. We would have achieved operational and tactical surprise at least and probably “won” the war.

The commanding general dismissed the concept quickly by asking whether we had heard the president’s speech the night before. He told us that President Johnson had announced a partial bombing halt. We answered that we had not. He said: “What you are proposing is not politically feasible.” He turned and left. Such a pursuit would have militarily destroyed the North Vietnamese forces in the northern part of South Vietnam and denied them their base areas and infiltration routes.  Three years later the South Vietnamese were to try this with devastating losses.

This is a classic example of the political limitations on even the most elemental operational aspects of the war in Vietnam. It also highlights the need for clear, unwavering military and political objectives that are in consonance before a conflict begins.

It was the experience of this war with its constantly changing political objectives and limitations on military action and the constant interplay between the political and the military that gave birth to the doctrine of “overwhelming force” espoused by General Colin Powell and practiced during the Gulf War against Iraq. It had its roots in situations similar to the one described.  Powell believed that in Vietnam we had never truly tried to win the war militarily because we always limited the area where we could fight and never committed enough troops to get the job done.

What Khe Sanh in particular and the Vietnam experience in general should teach us is not necessarily the criticality of overwhelming force.

They should teach us the importance of military objectives being a clear translation of the conditions that a politician seeks for the U.S. military to achieve at the end of the conflict — what it will mean to win. There are three critical pieces of guidance that need to be developed during the policymaking process, before hostilities begin:

A clear statement by the political authorities of the desired situation in the post-hostility and settlement phases of a dispute — what the area should “look like” following hostilities. President Bush 41’s 4 clear statements are a clear example of achievable political objectives.

A clear set of political objectives that when achieved will allow the above vision to become reality.

A set of military objectives that will, when achieved, allow and-or cause the above to happen. The stated political objectives continually changed in Vietnam in reaction to battlefield realities. They were not linked to achievable military objectives. Therefore, we may have won the battles, but did not win the war.

There is an argument to be made that the same was true of our initial thinking when we went to War with Iraq in 2002.  We did not have a clear vision of the end state.

The final point is for the political leadership to have the courage to continue unwaveringly in the face of adversity.  He who quits loses!

We should learn from Vietnam that winning is the achievement of political objectives by military means.   As the political goals changed the military ones did not.  When that occurs, the conflict is over. This applies as much today in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did to Vietnam.

In the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 the US captured Mexico City, which in those times meant that we had won.  But, there was no one Mexican authority who would surrender and be politically liable for “losing” to the Americans so the process dragged on for several months.

As we think about the Vietnam War, and all wars, we should be asking ourselves “Have we learned the lessons of Vietnam?”  Did we learn the lessons of the Gulf War?  Are we ready to support the politics of winning?


Today the nature of warfare has changed. It is unclear what constitutes victory in the current political climate in the eyes of the media. What does it mean to win?  We fight against terrorists who know no rules of war and who want to deny us our freedoms.  Very pertinent to today is what Winston Churchill said in 1940, before the United States entered World War II “Victory at all cost. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory no matter how long and how hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.

As we contemplate the sacrifices made years ago by the men and women commemorated in this service today let us insure that these warriors’ lives continue to be relevant in our search for freedom from the tyranny that terrorists would impose on us.  We as part of an international community must remember that without victory there is no survival.  Those brave men and women of years gone by understood this—do you?

Let me close by reading “The Absent Legions” by – Edgar A. Guest, which reflects the gratitude of a nation for those who paid the ultimate price to insure victory.

Somewhere, far away, they heard us

When the word of Victory stirred us.

Safe within God’s Holy keeping,

Heard us cheer and saw us weeping;

Shared in all we did or said—

Freedom’s glorious, youngest dead.

Never doubt it, there was gladness

Where the dead are done with madness,

Hate and hurt, and need for dying.

As they saw our banners flying

On our day of joyous pride,

“ ‘Twas for this,” said they,

“We died!”

What if tears our eyes had blinded,

As of them we were reminded?

Never doubt it, they were voicing

Somewhere, songs of great rejoicing;

Glad to look on earth and see

Safe our country, still, and free.

I am an old war horse and it has been both my privilege and sacred duty to prepare the rising generations to be more prepared for the battlefields of tomorrow than all the generations before you.  Upon graduation you will make decisions that may bring you to the brink of accepting that call to duty.  I admonish you to be prepared, be diligent, and be firm in your calling to protect the freedoms of this great nation. And above all – understand how priceless victory is!

Thank you.